Family Life and Parenting Styles

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the impact of different parenting styles on children’s development

Parenting Styles

Smiling man holding his young daughter on his shoulders.

Figure 1. Parenting styles may fluctuate or evolve depending on the situation.

Relationships between parents and children continue to play a significant role in children’s development during early childhood. We will explore two models of parenting styles. Keep in mind that most parents do not follow any model completely. Real people tend to fall somewhere in between these styles. And sometimes parenting styles change from one child to the next or in times when the parent has more or less time and energy for parenting. Parenting styles can also be affected by concerns the parent has in other areas of their life. For example, parenting styles tend to become more authoritarian when parents are tired and perhaps more authoritative when they are more energetic. Sometimes parents seem to change their parenting approach when others are around, maybe because they become more self-conscious as parents or are concerned with giving others the impression that they are a “tough” parent or an “easy-going” parent. And of course, parenting styles may reflect the type of parenting someone saw modeled while growing up.

Baumrind’s Parenting Styles

Baumrind (1971) offers a model of parenting that includes three styles. The first, authoritarian, is the traditional model of parenting in which parents make the rules and children are expected to be obedient. Baumrind suggests that authoritarian parents tend to place maturity demands on their children that are unreasonably high and tend to be aloof and distant. Consequently, children reared in this way may fear rather than respect their parents and, because their parents do not allow discussion, may take out their frustrations on safer targets – perhaps as bullies toward peers.

Permissive parenting involves being a friend to a child rather than an authority figure. Children are allowed to make their own rules and determine their own activities. Parents are warm and communicative but provide little structure for their children. Children may fail to learn self-discipline and may feel somewhat insecure because they do not know the limits.

Authoritative parenting involves being appropriately strict, reasonable, and affectionate. Parents allow negotiation where appropriate and discipline matches the severity of the offense. A popular parenting program that is offered in many school districts is called “Love and Logic” and reflects the authoritative or democratic style of parenting just described.

Today we recognize a fourth style within the Baumrind framework: uninvolved parenting. These parents are disengaged from their children. They do not make demands on their children and are non-responsive. These children can suffer in school and in their relationships with their peers (Gecas & Self, 1991).

Chart of parenting styles. Those with low warmth/responsiveness and low expectations/control are uninvolved. Those with low expectations and high warmth are permissive. those with high expectations and low warmth are authoritarian. Those with high expectations and high warmth are authoritative.

Figure 2. Parents who are both warm and responsive while still maintaining a high level of control are considered authoritative.

Lemasters and Defrain’s Parenting Model

Lemasters and Defrain (1989) offered yet another model of parenting. This model is interesting because it looks more closely at the motivations of the parent and suggests that parenting styles are often designed to meet the psychological needs of the parent rather than the developmental needs of the child.

The martyr is a parent who will do anything for the child, even tasks that the child should do for themselves. All of the good deeds performed for the child, in the name of being a “good parent,” may be used later should the parent want to gain compliance from the child. If a child goes against the parent’s wishes, the parent can remind the child of all of the times the parent helped the child and evoke a feeling of guilt so that the child will do what the parent wants. The child learns to be dependent and manipulative as a result. (Beware, a parent busy whipping up cookies may really be thinking “control”!)

The pal is like the permissive parent described in Baumrind’s model above. The pal wants to be the child’s friend. Perhaps the parent is lonely, or perhaps the parent is trying to win a popularity contest against an ex-spouse. Pals let children do what they want and focus most on being entertaining and fun. They set few limitations. Consequently, the child may have little self-discipline and may try to test limits with others.

The police officer/drill sergeant style of parenting is similar to the authoritarian parent described above. The parent focuses primarily on making sure that the child is obedient and that the parent has full control of the child. Sometimes this can be taken to extremes by giving the child tasks that are really designed to check on their level of obedience. For example, the parent may require that the child fold the clothes and place items back in the drawer in a particular way. If not, the child might be scolded or punished for not doing things “right.” This type of parent has a very difficult time allowing the child to grow and learn to make decisions independently. And the child may have a lot of resentment toward the parent that is displaced on others.

The teacher-counselor parent is one who pays a lot of attention to expert advice on parenting and who believes that as long as all of the steps are followed, the parent can rear a perfect child. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. There are two major problems with this approach. First, the parent is taking all of the responsibility for the child’s behavior, at least indirectly. If the child has difficulty, the parent feels responsible and thinks that the solution lies in reading more advice and trying more diligently to follow that advice. Parents can certainly influence children, but thinking that the parent is fully responsible for the child’s outcome is faulty. A parent can only do so much and can never have full control over the child. Another problem with this approach is that the child may get an unrealistic sense of the world and what can be expected from others. For example, if a teacher-counselor parent decides to help the child build self-esteem and has read that telling the child how special they are or how important it is to compliment the child on a job well done, the parent may convey the message that everything the child does is exceptional or extraordinary. A child may come to expect that all of their efforts warrant praise, and in the real world, this is not something one can expect. Perhaps children get more of a sense of pride from assessing their own performance than from having others praise their efforts.

So what is left? Lemasters and Defrain (1989) suggest that the athletic coach style of parenting is best. Before you draw conclusions here, set aside any negative experiences you may have had with coaches in the past. The principles of coaching are what are important to Lemasters and Defrain. A coach helps players form strategies, supports their efforts, gives feedback on what went right and what went wrong, and stands at the sideline while the players perform. Coaches and referees make sure that the rules of the game are followed and that all players adhere to those rules. Similarly, the athletic coach as parent helps the child understand what needs to happen in certain situations whether in friendships, school, or home life and encourages and advises the child about how to manage these situations. The parent does not intervene or do things for the child. Rather, the parent’s role is to provide guidance while the child learns firsthand how to handle these situations. The rules for behavior are consistent and objective and presented in that way. So, a child who is late for dinner might hear the parent respond in this way, “Dinner was at six o’clock.”  Rather than, “You know good and well that we always eat at six. If you expect me to get up and make something for you now, you have got another thing coming! Just who do you think you are showing up late and looking for food? You’re grounded until further notice!”

The most important thing to remember about parenting is that you can be a better, more objective parent when you are directing your actions toward the child’s needs while considering what they can reasonably be expected to do at their stage of development. Parenting is more difficult when you are tired and have psychological needs that interfere with the relationship. Some of the best advice for parents is to try not to take the child’s actions personally, and be as objective as possible.

Class and Culture

The impact of class and culture cannot be ignored when examining parenting styles. The two models of parenting described above assume that authoritative and athletic coaching styles are best because they are designed to help the parent raise a child who is independent, self-reliant, and responsible. These are qualities favored in “individualistic” cultures such as the United States, particularly by the middle class.

Authoritarian parenting has been used historically and reflects the cultural need for children to do as they are told. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian parents tend to be more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. In collectivistic cultures such as China or Korea, being obedient and compliant are favored behaviors. In societies where family members’ cooperation is necessary for survival, as in the case of raising crops, rearing children who are independent and who strive to be on their own makes no sense. But in an economy based on being mobile in order to find jobs and where one’s earnings are based on education, raising a child to be independent is very important.

Working-class parents are more likely than middle-class parents to focus on obedience and honesty when raising their children. In a classic study on social class and parenting styles called Class and Conformity, Kohn (1977) explained that parents tend to emphasize qualities that are needed for their own survival when parenting their children. Working-class parents are rewarded for being obedient, reliable, and honest in their jobs. They are not paid to be independent or to question the management; rather, they move up and are considered good employees if they show up on time, do their work as they are told, and can be counted on by their employers. Consequently, these parents reward honesty and obedience in their children. Middle-class parents who work as professionals are rewarded for taking initiative, being self-directed, and being assertive in their jobs. They are required to get the job done without being told exactly what to do. They are asked to be innovative and to work independently. These parents encourage their children to have those qualities as well by rewarding independence and self-reliance. Parenting styles can reflect many elements of culture.

Link to Learning

In Scout O’Donnell’s TED Talk, she describes the alternative parenting style used by her parents. Can you find elements of authoritative and coaching parenting, along with a little Love and Logic?

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Child Care Concerns

About 75.7 percent of mothers of school-aged and 65.1 percent of mothers of preschool-aged children in the United States work outside the home[1]. Since more women have been entering the workplace, there has been a concern that families do not spend as much time with their children. This, however, may not be true. Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time that parents spent with children increased overall (Sandberg and Hofferth, 2001). Modern numbers for this vary widely, as many parents who work outside of the home also devote significant amounts of time to childcare, to 14 hours a week, compared with 10 in 1965.[2] The amount of this time that is undistracted and involved may be close to 34 minutes a day.[3]

Seventy-five percent of children under age 5 are in scheduled child care programs. Others are cared for by family members, friends, or are in Head Start Programs. Older children are often in after school programs, before school programs, or stay at home alone after school once they are older. Quality childcare programs can enhance a child’s social skills and can provide rich learning experiences. But long hours in poor quality care can have negative consequences for young children in particular. What determines the quality of child care? One very important consideration is the teacher/child ratio. States specify the maximum number of children that can be supervised by one teacher. In general, the younger the children, the more teachers required for a given number of children. The lower the teacher-to-child ratio, the more time the teacher has for involvement with the children and the less stressed the teacher may be so that the interactions can be more relaxed, stimulating, and positive. The more children there are in a program, the less desirable the program as well. This is because the center may be more rigid in rules and structure to accommodate the large number of children in the facility.

The physical environment should be colorful, stimulating, clean, and safe. The philosophy of the organization and the curriculum available should be child-centered, positive, and stimulating. Providers should be trained in early childhood education as well. A majority of states do not require training for their child care providers. And while formal education is not required for a person to provide a warm, loving relationship to a child, knowledge of a child’s development is useful for addressing their social, emotional, and cognitive needs in an effective way. By working toward improving the quality of childcare and increasing family-friendly workplace policies, such as more flexible scheduling and perhaps childcare facilities at places of employment, we can accommodate families with smaller children and relieve parents of the stress sometimes associated with managing work and family life.

Global Concerns:  The Market Women of Liberia

Work and mothering go hand in hand in many parts of the world. Consider the market women of Liberia. These are women who work as street vendors and are primary providers for their families. They come together in marketplaces along with their children to sell their goods while keeping a watchful eye on their children. Recently, they have been supported by President Sirleaf whose grandmother was a market woman. President Sirleaf has worked to raise funds to improve the marketplaces and conditions for mothers and children. The hope has been to make these marketplaces more safe, to provide childcare, and social services to improve the lives of mothers and children (Nance-Nash, 2009). This video on the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund explains more.

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athletic coach style of parenting:
the rules for behavior are consistent and objective and presented in that way. The parent’s role is to provide guidance while the child learns firsthand how to handle these situations
authoritarian parenting:
the traditional model of parenting in which parents make the rules and children are expected to be obedient
authoritative parenting:
appropriately strict, reasonable, and affectionate. They are willing to negotiate when appropriate
martyr parent:
parent who will do anything for the child, even tasks that the child should do independently, may later use what they have done for the child to invoke guilt and compliance
pal parent:
wants to be the child’s friend and focuses being entertaining and fun
permissive parenting:
involves being a friend to a child rather than an authority figure. Children are allowed to make their own rules and determine their own activities
police officer/drill sergeant parent:
focuses primarily on making sure that the child is obedient and that the parent has full control of the child
teacher-counselor parent:
pays a lot of attention to expert advice on parenting and believes that as long as all of the steps are followed, the parent can rear a perfect child
uninvolved parenting:
parents who are disengaged from their children, do not make demands on their children, and are non-responsive

  1. (April 2018) "Employment Characteristics of Families." Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from
  2. Geiger, A.W., Livingston, Gretchen, and Bialik, Kristen (May 2019). "6 facts about U.S. moms." Pew Research Center. Retrieved from
  3. Renner, B. (2018, March 21). American families spend just 37 minutes of quality time TOGETHER per Day, survey finds. Study Finds.